Film studies expert Lyz Renshaw takes us through the first forty years of French cinema history and gives us a list of titles to add to our Netflix queues.
Gary Girod Intro:
Hello and welcome to the very first special episode of the French History podcast. One of my aims for this podcast is to bring together scholars from all fields to share their expertise on French history. In retrospect I don’t think there is any better place to start than with a look at French cinema history. France is famous for many things but its cinematic achievements are of paramount interest to the world. Though I’m guessing most English language speakers have only touched the surface of France’s rich filmography I know I personally need to watch more French films and while listening to Lyz’s list of important films I know what I’ll be checking out next. French cinema is a truly powerful phrase to most Americans. It invokes a kind of depth rarely seen in American films. I personally remember a phase during my undergrad years in which I got addicted to French cinema. I remember watching a film called ‘Les Chansons d’Amour’ which translates as ‘Love Songs,’ in a French class and it remains one of my favorite films of all time. Looking back I’m not sure how good it was. It was certainly bizarre but it was definitely a slap in the face to the typical American musical romance film and that’s why I love it to this day. From there I went on to watch ‘Ma Vie en Rose’ and a bunch of contemporary French films today’s episode takes us back to the beginning of French cinema when France was the premiere film making nation in the world before the rise of Hollywood. And it’s certainly a must listen introduction for anyone interested in French film.
Today’s guest host is Lyz Renshaw. Lyz is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan Technological University studying rhetoric theory and culture with a focus on media studies particularly narrative, narratology, feminism and video game theory. However her initial research background is that a film and today show returned to her roots to talk about what she believes is the true birth of the movies, French cinema I want to give a special thanks to Lyz for doing this on such short notice. I had one guest who was going to deliver an episode but then he got the flu.
Then I had another guest lined up but she had to actually cut her vacation short because she got accepted in a new job and had to do a bunch of preparation for that. So Lyz really came through both for me and for the podcast. So thank you very much, especially because I had no idea just how big a request it was that I was making. In retrospect I should have realized just how big a topic French cinema history is. I should have figured how big this request was because I asked Lyz to give us an introduction to French cinema at a time when French cinema was the most important in the world. So thank you very much for putting up with my insane request. I hope you all enjoy today’s episode as we take a dive through early French cinema. Looking at early sci fi films surrealism and the development of artistic masterpieces before the decline in the French cinema scene. And yes to answer your question Lyz I would love to have you back for further episodes so I can add more movies to my list. Without further ado I give you the French History Podcasts own film expert Lyz Renshaw’s.
When Gary asked me to record a podcast on the history of French cinema I was really excited. There are definitely periods in French cinematic history that I’m a huge fan of French New Wave especially films like Breathless the current France horror scene that is just a little bit left of torture porn book with a feminist twist. There are definitely some very interesting angles to look at but then Gary requested that he wanted to talk about the rise of French cinema to its fall giving way to American cinema post-war War 2 which is essentially. 50 years of history of. For anyone who’s taken a film on one class or film history class usually if they separated to one semester than the second semester the first semester here is usually starting in 1890 and then going to 1945 or end of which were two and then the second semester B post 1945 French cinema. Is the exact same length of 1890 to 1945 is the rise and fall because French cinema is just as integral to the origin of film as American cinema and some could argue even more so. Or that you can’t have cinema without both. Edison and the Lumiere brothers who will be first talking about because there are so many films and movements and movies to talk about in that 50 year period of 1890 to nineteen forty five.
I’m going to pick what I think are the top five films that represent various movements and decades within that period to discuss. So we’re going to start off first going on to talk a little bit about the Lumiere brothers even though I don’t think their films aesthetically represent the beginning of cinema but I do want to give a quick touch upon who these two guys are because essentially the exact opposite of America’s first I guess film monopolist Thomas Edison. Siegfried Krakauer who if you do know anything about international cinema his theories and history much more often focus on German film particularly German expressionism. And while we’re to German cinema. But he notes that the two main tendencies of cinema especially in Europe the focus should be on Lumiere and George Melies. In one of his articles he explains that Lumineers films contained a true innovation as compared with the repertoire of the zoetropes of Edison’s peep boxes. They pictured everyday life after the manner of photographs. There are several Lumiere brothers homes that you can still go and see on YouTube. There’s Baby’s Breakfast, ‘The Card Players.’ I would recommend watching ‘Teasing the Gardener,’ It shows that slapstick comedy has always been around in cinematic history.
But I think it’s also a good example of narrative in such a short period of time it does have a three act structure even though it’s only about 30 seconds. The Lumiere Brothers are also very famous for scenes of the world. I guess you could say Gorky describes them as lawyers lens did open on the world take his immortal first reel’s lunch hour at the Lumiere factory arrival at the train and the police day quoted law in the. The reason why some of these first reels are immortal. There is the urban legend of when arrival at a train was first shown in theatres and we’re not talking theatre as we imagine the modern day. We’re talking more of a projection screen put at a cafe that the angle that the train came at. Audiences who had never seen a film before as the train headed towards the camera that there were people supposedly scared that the train was actually going to come at them.
And it’s the camerawork and the cinematography that was being done over in France that made it very different than what Edison was doing over in the US. I would describe early American cinema as much more technical. Working on just getting a lot of films out of various different genres putting it out there very capitalist. And even though there was the strict realism according to Gorky of Lumiere and the artistic imagination Melia as I would say both those groups to me, the Lumiere brothers and Melies were artists when it came to how they treated cinema. While Americans were technicians and even the superb camera angles camera angles with the early Lumiere brother films. Even though the content was very realistic I think goes to show that they were testing the rounds of cinema at an early age so that’s why I think the Lumiere brothers are incredibly important to talk about when talking about not just the origins of French cinema but the origin of cinema in general.
But as I said I think the most important first film to look at in France is ‘Voyage to the Moon’ by George Melies. ‘Voyage to the Moon’ also known as ‘Trip to the Moon’ was released in 1982 and it is an adaptation of Jules Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon.’ Much of early cinema was actually adaptations of novels or plays Edison even did a very early adaptation of Frankenstein or Wizard of Oz. So when we complain today about lack of originality in films that’s been going on since the beginning. What’s interesting about Melies is that he started out as a magician. That’s his background. He wasn’t a technician so he started out on stage and we see a lot of that in the US as well but it’s mainly comedic actors coming in from the stage and then bringing their tricks. So we have like Shackleton and stuff in America but over in Europe you had it for the directors as well. And what’s important about that is these special effects that he was able to use in a trip to the moon shows plenty of them. We’re talking about in camera special effects for the most part not post-production but there were examples of that as well. There were time lapse photography, dissolves, exposures. He used a lot of effects that you would see on stage for disappearing objects and such. But what’s more important is hand painted color. We think of cinema pre-1930s as black and white cinema and it was black and white but could have color added to it. And that was something that especially in Europe over the US they took advantage of it, especially Melies.
So ‘A Trip to the Moon’ is one of the first science fiction or fantasy films of Verne’s work itself is very difficult to define genre-wise so, the same with any adaptation of his film. It is basically about a bunch of wizard/scientists based on the costumes. It’s again difficult to define, that decide to take a trip to the moon and this is where that iconic image of the man in the moon really comes from. They shoot up this rocket it lands right in the eye of man in the moon and you’ve seen them exploring the place and many iconic images that we now have of space adventures comes from this very film. And so that’s why I believe that representing the earliest of genre films but also the films of the 1900s so nineteen hundred and nineteen nine. Melies’ this trip to the moon is probably the go to if you want to know what was going on back then go watch this film
Coming in in the 1910s I’m not going to pick a film but a series of films. So we’re very familiar here in the US with radio serials and we have ‘The Phantom’ and ‘The Shadow’ over here in the US and over in France is based on again a series of books or novels in this case. I want to talk about the 1913 serial ‘Fantomas.’ ‘Fantomas’ is probably most recognizable to U.S. audiences for its main character. Think Tuxedo Mask he pretty much looks like Tuxedo Mask the font MIS is known for being on his posters and a very nice tux got the top hat and then he has a very simple black mask across his eyes. ‘Fantamous’ was a seriaized series known for having cliffhangers at the end and why I think it’s an important series of French cinema at the time. Is that it really did predict the direction that France media was going to take in France media in general for the rest of the 20th century. Because these crime stories particularly burglary stories were going to be hit upon in cinema again and again afterwards you can see that with Band of Outsiders, Les Samurai, Rifi, coming out. So in the 1950s 60s and 70s this pattern still continues but it all really starts off with Fantomas. and Fantomas was also a big deal because it spoke to the overnight stardom that could occur. So you had René Navarre who became a star this celebrity in France overnight for his portrayal in Fantomas. Many stars in France would go on to become big stars in the US. That was not the case with René Navarre. But you can see that with actresses Chevrolet more of his bigger films came when he went to the US and start performing in musicals there. But the U.S. wasn’t the only one with the star system. France had that as well.
Fantomas is also another set of films. It’s very easy to find online. I would definitely recommend watching the first episode ‘In the Shadow of the Guillotine.’ I think that’s one of the best. And personally the third episode ‘The Murderous Corpse’ is also incredibly good so definitely check that out. I think it’s always important to see that cinema is it just strictly shorts or movies but the serialized action of it as well because it goes and speaks to the different attendance behavior of the time period in the 1910s. The first episode’s about 54 minutes when you put all the pieces together. Third episode’s about 90 minutes. So they were telling large stories you could think of them as early TV series in a way but they were telling them in just bits and pieces and again the narrative focusing on cliffhangers. I would say that up until the 1920s Europe, so we’re talking their German storytelling a little bit with the Italians some Swedes but mainly Germany and France. But their storytelling again was a bit more experimental and taking more creative chances than Americans and American cinema was stealing it from the Europeans
For the 1920s. I’m going to cheat a little bit both cards to the number of films I’m discussing but also the time period the 1920s both in French cinema and in French art overall saw the rise of surrealism taking over from impressionism. So we’re talking about the works of Deda, Andre. Breton we also saw as Germaine Dulac, who had originally worked in regular feature filmmaking in France impressionism turnover to surrealism in particular with the film ‘Cecil and Clergymen.’ What I really enjoy about French surrealism is even though the films have very
surrealistic some could say odd weird incoherent imagery is a lot of French surrealist films are very metaphor heavy but still have a clear narrative. You’re definitely sitting there confused at some points trying to figure out what’s going on but then everything ties well together. So. I wouldn’t call them or go as far as to say avant garde films because there’s still a narrative behind them. The purpose is still to tell a story but they’re telling that story through surreal imagery.
A lot of quintessential surrealist films weren’t actually directed by a Frenchman but instead directed by Spaniard Buñuel. And he would team up often with a Gene Epstein and Salvador Dali. One of his most famous films and one of the most famous images in cinematic history is from 1928 ‘An Andalusian Dog’ And in it at one point the film just begins with a man inexplicably slicing the heroine’s eye open with a razor. And yet in the next shot she’s completely fine again. This is pulling on France and America’s history of using special effects and trickery and magic. How that shot was completed since we don’t have CGI was the camera zoomed in on what appeared to be the heroine’s face and it was and zoomed into her eye and the cutting the eyeball was actually done with a goat’s eyes because goats and cats eyes are known for having very similar consistency to human eye. Side note they also make very good bouncy balls so that’s how they were pull it off.
Despite the graphic nature ‘An Andalusian Dog’ is not a horror film but France does have somewhat of an interesting obsession with eyes and gore. Later on in the French film Les Diaboliques (?) you would see a man sitting in a bathtub and you believe he’s dead because you see the whites of his eyes and he rises from the tub freaking out his wife who had intended on murdering him to be with her lover and after she has a heart attack he removes the whites of his eyes they’re just lenses put there. So the French have some weird obsession with the eyes and gore or tension upon the eye.
Another of the surrealist films I want to talk about which was also done by Dali Buñuel was the ‘Age of Gold’ in 1930. So again sort of skirting the line between films that represent the 1920s and that also has a lot of strong imagery. There’s an ox in a bed. There’s already scene that seems to involve a Jesus like figure. There’s a wedding ceremony where the priest sort of weathered skeletons, so controversial to say the least. But come the 1930s the surrealist films declined. Some of that was due to the political activities of the filmmakers themselves and also rising tension in Europe in general. So even though several films I mentioned were 1928-1930 they still represent the 1920s since that was sort of the end in the heyday of surrealist cinema.
I’m very excited to talk about my choice for the 1930s as it is one of my favorite films of all time, not just, of the war genre and not just of France films but of all time and that is ‘The Grand Illusion by Jean Renoir from 1937. It’s a anti-war film a film about pacifism. It’s actually based on a British book called The Great Illusion that talks about the futility of war. The film is about a group of POWS during WWI who try to escape from their camp and the struggles that they face even after getting out of there. Jean Renoir is a very interesting filmmaker who has had success in Hollywood in the 1940s. The reason why he went into cinema was he was very influenced by the German films of Erich von Stroheim. American audiences may recognize Erich von Stroheim as the butler from Sunset Boulevard. But he was first a filmmaker and also an actor over in Europe before coming over to the US Jean Renoir did.
In this film Jean Renoir gets to work with Erich von Stroheim he plays the German general in the film and you can see the passion that both of them had even though they did tend to butt heads because von Stroheim really wanted to delve into authenticity of what a German officer would do and they didn’t always agree but it really does come through in the film how much passion and a little way despite the dramatic topic of it, hence the undramatic title. You really wouldn’t guess that the Grand Illusion is essentially Hogan’s Heroes of Hogan’s Hereso was very melancholy and dramatic but it really does come through. In regards to just how, painful and futile. What they go through is every time you get your hopes up about what these prisoners of war can do even after they escape. And as the closer we get to the end you just don’t know if they will succeed. And it’s heartbreaking. But in a way you walk away from this film with some sense of hope and that’s a very difficult thing to do.
One of the reasons why this is my favorite film is how I was introduced to it. I was at the 2012 Bologna Film Festival which if you are interested in lost and found films or preserved films I’ve definitely recommend trying to tend it in Bologna, Italy during the summer so very hot but very worthwhile. I’ve seen restored versions of Lawrence of Arabia and in this case Grand Illusion as well there. What’s interesting is that the history of Grand Illusion and the original negative speaks to the history of French cinema. At that time so the film was released in 1937 is known as one of Jean Renoir most famous and most successful films. It was loved by the likes of Orson Welles who believe that it was the pinnacle of cinematic excellence. But after Germany invaded during World War 2, they took all the artwork. Whether it be books or paintings or films and they didn’t burn the original negative but they did take it.
And then when Russia. Came in after World War 2 they took many of the artistic artifacts that Germany had taken from the nations that it invaded. Eventually. France was able to go to various libraries in Russia which by the way if you didn’t know Russia’s history with their libraries is still growing. It’s one of the places that in Moscow especially one of the few quiet places that you can go to and study but also one of the places with great artistic expression for the millennials of Russia in regards to they can get their hands on actual books where they can get their hands on musical compositions on films and such. So, Le Grand Illusion was found in one of these Russian libraries in about the 1970s but no one knew that the negatives they found were the original negatives for a long time. So a restored version came out in the 2010s and it’s a beautifully done version but I like tracking the history of the negative because it really does track what happens during a war. It isn’t just the loss of life but the loss of history as well.
And getting back the Grand Illusion really speaks to how the French resisted and they resisted through their art. And that was a tendency that Jean Renoir continued when he came over to the U.S. He made several anti Nazi films as well, when he was over here. So that’s one reason why I truly do love the Grand Illusion and the film that I wanted to discuss from the 1940s continues that trend and that is the epic romance essentially the Gone With The Wind of French cinema, and that is 1945 Children of Paradise which was actually made during Nazi occupation, in France. There were still French films made, through a German company known as Continental Films and. Why that existed was that the Germans didn’t want the invasion of American films so they would work with French film makers to fill in slots at movie theaters. Children of Paradise is not that case. It was sort of made under the nose of Nazis.
It is directed by Marcel Carné and it tells a story sweeping romance again set against Parisiantheatre scene of the eighteen twenties and thirties, about a courtesan and the four men who are interested earners or you can see influence with the modern film Moulin Rouge is playing in there. Again, this was one of those films that directors have said is a pinnacle of cinematic history not just of French cinema. Really what gives rise to strong French films from what you can see in this very short podcast trying to touch upon about 50 years of cinema is the work of resistance, and their films usually come through with that sense of hope, even if the endings may not always be the typical Hollywood ending that you would expect.
At the beginning of this I told you that Gary had asked me to talk about the rise of French cinema especially in comparison to Hollywood cinema. How French were able to maintain their identity to the fall of French cinema due to Hollywood. I don’t believe that French cinema really fell due to Hollywood. I believe it was killed mainly due to World War 2 and the Germans taking away their older films, having many of the filmmakers like in Germany and in England. France was the same but a lot of them went over to Hollywood too in that way you could say that French cinema fell to Hollywood. But I believe that it was more talent leaving than Hollywood coming in. I hope this really sparked your interest in looking up French films. Hopefully Gary likes me back and I can talk about the second half of cinematic and France history and I would be happy to present you guys with some other top five list.
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